Focusing on the Promise of Robotics

JANUARY 30, 2017

Many people, including some very famous inventors and intellectuals whom I admire, are afraid of automation. Perhaps they’ve read too many sci-fi stories or seen too many movies where robots take over the world. Or perhaps they’re concerned about the very real issue of job displacement, where people are being replaced in manufacturing and processing environments by robots that can do the job quicker and for longer.

I personally believe their fears are unfounded. In the long run, I believe in the promise of robotics. They will improve the human condition, create entirely new job categories we haven’t even thought of yet, and help develop new ways of building things.

Although trained as a mathematician, early in my career I worked as a mechanical engineer. I then spent the better part of two decades at Bell Labs, the company that invented transistors and the Unix computer language, and pioneered computing and the internet. Most of that time was in the Consumer Lab I helped to create, which conducted thousands of experiments with consumers experiencing new technologies. The natural evolution of my career — who I am and what I’ve learned ― is a direct result of experiencing and promoting the synergy between mechanical and information systems and their interplay with humans.

What I’ve seen is that when you put together all the elements of industrial automation — mechanics, electronics, and computing ― the combination forms robotics.

We’ve seen robots deployed in security, military, manufacturing, health care, and other work environments. For years, the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic has been using automated guiding vehicles to deliver supplies, food, linens, medications, and more throughout its main campus 24 hours a day.

They’re Everywhere. Everywhere.

Outside of work, the general consumer is encountering robots more and more in their daily lives. We’ve seen iRobot’s Roomba accepted into households where it performs the mundane task of vacuuming the house, thus freeing up the owner to relax or take on other tasks. The next time you need something delivered to your hotel room, perhaps Savioke’s Relay robot will deliver it seamlessly to your door.

So, why all the fear? Back to the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Industrial Revolution, and now the Information Age, there has always been some resistance to change. As with every revolution, there is resistance.

People fear change. I get that. However, I think they are forgetting the limitations of robots. Robots may look autonomous, but their programming and computational algorithms can’t replace human intuition and judgment. I believe in augmented intelligence instead of artificial intelligence. Intelligent robots can work with us, but they cannot replace us.

Yes, Machines Talk to Each Other

In fictional stories like the “Terminator” movies, the robot revolution did not originate from autonomous robots but rather from a centralized conscious group mind called Skynet. If I got all of my scientific information from action movies, I’d be scared as well. Even serious computer scientists have extrapolated from examples of programs beating the Turing Test to robots indistinguishable from and antagonistic to humans.

Perhaps that’s why some people are afraid of the internet of things (IoT), which allows “smart devices” to communicate with each other and exchange information. Your smartphone can program your thermostat remotely; the power company knows how much energy a neighborhood consumes and can adjust its output accordingly, and your refrigerator knows when you’re out of milk.

That’s just too much for some people to take. What they don’t know or forget is that the internet of things cannot function by itself — it requires people. Their smart appliances will not gang up to torment them. Communicating and exchanging data is not the same thing as dreaming, thinking, and planning; only humans can do all that at the same time.

I actually think the internet of things is a misnomer. I’ve written articles wherein I refer to “the internet of people and things” (IoPT). Recently, Bell and Howell issued iPhones and smart devices to hundreds of our service technicians throughout North America. Our technicians use these devices to share data and videos with each other, improving their knowledge and better servicing clients. Without the human element streaming data through connected devices, the system is only a large, untapped repository of data.

If we can find ways to leverage the connection among people and machines, we can set the stage for improving lives around the globe.

Augmenting Human Capability

So, what is the proper role for robots? Very simple. Robots can augment human capability. With the promise of robotics, industry leaders can potentially win over naysayers and skeptics by demonstrating positive results. As advocates, we need to show examples of how robots are improving productivity and quality of life.

For example, systems from Fetch Robotics intelligently follow distribution-center workers as they select products to be delivered to the shipping area. Rather than replacing the humans, the robots are helping workers be more productive. Certainly, people have lost their jobs to automation. But, they can and should retrain in new and emerging fields.

Currently, we’re enjoying the combination of “mechatronics,” automation and the internet of things. Tasks like these augment work that humans can’t, or don’t, want to do. Regardless of personal safety or physical limitations, robots can spare human lives.

I believe it is the combination of humans and technology that will propel us into a new age. In the next 30 years, robotics will show more productivity enhancements than the last 300 years of the industrial revolution. The promise of robotics and all they can deliver in the coming decades should be enough to allay the fears of those who still view robots in a negative or cautious light.

The glass is not only half-full but will soon be filled by a robot butler who knows my beverage preferences. I look forward to that day.